The Look # 1: Julie Flashes


Julie Christie flashes the camera in BILLY LIAR.

I am reading and enjoying Geoff Dyer’s Zona — it really is as good as everyone says. The kind of book I’d like to write, if I could settle on a film and if anyone would agree with me on which film was worth settling on.

Dyer has plumped for Tarkovsky’s STALKER, and his discursive approach echoes the antics of a lively mind watching a slow film — sometimes totally concentrated on the sounds and images in front of him, sometimes darting off into memory or fantasy, inspired by the movie but running on a parallel track. Here’s Dyer on a moment when Tark’s characters seem to meet the camera’s gaze ~


This is in direct contravention of Roland Barthe’s edict in his essay ‘Right in the Eyes’, that, while it is permissible for the subject to star into the lens–at the spectator–in a still photograph, ‘it is forbidden for an actor to look at the camera’ in a movie. So convinced was Barthes of his own rule that he as ‘not far from considering this ban as the cinema’s distinctive feature…. If a single gaze from the screen came to rest on me, the whole film would be lost.’

Either the quotation is doing Barthes no favours, or Barthes is a silly man who hasn’t seen enough movies. “Don’t look at the camera!” cries Francis Ford Coppola in APOCALYPSE NOW, playing a documentary director, ignoring the fact that in documentaries (which are, arguably, movies), characters looking at the camera actually ENHANCES the realism. It’s when they’re too good at pretending it isn’t there that the fly-on-the-wall approach starts to seem artificial, staged.

Nevertheless, in fiction films it’s true that there’s a convention — which only means that those, quite frequent moments when the rule is broken always seem mildly unconventional. In a mainstream film, the effect is noted, and the ticket-buyer says, “OK, this is a little unusual, but as long as the filmmaker doesn’t get too crazy, I’m going to allow it.”

My favourite video store story: two young men looking at prospective rentals. One picks up the Christian Slater vehicle KUFFS. The other says he’s seen it. “Any good.” “Aye, awright.” “Much action in it?” A micro-pause. “Ah… he talks to the camera.” Said as if this were, arguably, a form of action.

In BILLY LIAR, Julie’s lapse is momentary and obviously unintentional, but in good movies even flaws are good. This scene is already breaking from Billy’s POV, which makes it a violation of the movie’s own rules. If Julie is exceptional enough to merit a scene of her own, away from the prying eyes of the POV character, and devoid of any fundamental narrative purpose (well, it’s introducing Julie, swinging her handbag, and that’s ENOUGH), then surely she’s allowed to sneak a peek at camera operator Jack Atchelor. She’s Julie Christie, she has special privileges.

Inaugurating a little season considering some looks to camera, and what they might mean.

16 Responses to “The Look # 1: Julie Flashes”

  1. Does this scene from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde qualify?

  2. The most famous “look” is Harriet Anderson in Bergman’s Summer with Monika Godard was over the moon about it and he had Anna Karina follow in her footsteps in Une Femme est Une Fmme, Vivre sa Vie, Pierrot le Fou and Made in USA

  3. Mark Fuller Says:

    More famous than Hardy gazing at the audience in exasperation at Laurel’s antics in any number of films ??? Or are we discounting deliberate 4th wall breaking ???

  4. Well, both looks are famous in different ways, and both break the fourth wall deliberately — although Stan & Ollie wouldn’t have phrased it that way, I guess.

    Chaplin’s familiarity with the camera/audience normalized the idea that comedians know they’re being watched. Ollie looks in order to enlist our sympathy, seemingly unaware that we find him funny — so he can/can’t see us?

  5. One might set comic takes in a separate category. When a Benny Hill mugs into the camera, it’s understood he’s inviting the viewer to share his surprise, naughty thoughts, or momentary confusion as a co-conspiritor (and of course allowing space for an audience laugh). But it’s a continuation of a film (and I assume stage) tradition of comics who were not so much breaking the fourth wall as signaling their thought processes, like a dialogue balloon or question mark over a cartoon character’s head.

    A comic could and would pull faces at the object of his thoughts: the balky automobile, the candle that moved, a feminine undergarment found where it shouldn’t be, etc. But when the comic was holding up a facade before a boss giving a surreal order or a pretty girl offering a double entendre, that turn to the camera was needed to indicate he was thinking WTF while pretending to respectfully comprehend. Stan Laurel’s camera looks were only occasionally Hardyesque audience connections. Most often they revealed he was struggling to understand something, or was misunderstanding in a way that was about to bear comic fruit.

    Soon enough a pointed LACK of reaction could cue the viewer to interior thoughts. The appropriate expression that doesn’t move in the face of an inappropriate development, especially when accompanied by a pause revealing the need to think this out (or to cope with unmistakable implications). Or a banal phrase meant to restore normalcy, whether offered nervously or with an excess of sangfroid. A film language evolved such that audiences had multiple accepted cues that a revealed a non-facial thought.

  6. Wow, you may have exhausted the field! But I’ll see if I have any further thoughts on the comic look-to-camera next time, it’s a distinct form and one that I have to address in a series of this kind.

  7. Bud Cort’s conspiratorial smile to camera in HAROLD AND MAUDE is my favourite.

  8. Yes, and an excellent disproof of Barthes’ nonsense: Cort acknowledges his chums the audience, ONCE, and NOTHING CHANGES. The movie goes back to its story, fourth wall intact. It’s not a wall, I feel, it’s a semi-permeable membrane.

  9. The instance where looking at the camera surprised me most was Sybil Seely in ONE WEEK – where she’s about to emerge from her bath in the privacy of her new bathroom, to retrieve a fallen bar of soap, then realizes the camera is in there with her. At which point, as I’m sure you know, the hand of the camera operator extends itself demurely in front of the lens. It seems a real shame that Barthes didn’t know his Keaton.

  10. Good one! And, for all the film gags in Sherlock Jnr, that’s a unique moment in Keaton, exposing the artifice.

  11. A look that demands analysis: The space baby staring at you in the closing shot of 2001.

    First saw it in monstrous widescreen as a kid; creeped me out beyond reason. And I’m not too comfy thinking about it now.

  12. An interesting point: what is the starchild trying to tell us? Moonwatcher the ape KIND OF yowls at us earlier, I think, so this is perhaps an echo (in the novel there’s a key line of text used for both bone-wielder and homo superior so they mirror each other) of the earlier transcendence.

    What would follow, presumably, is something like Childhood’s End, with the rest of humanity being led forward to Bowman’s more advanced state –that sort of post-human idea IS creepy, even when viewed optimistically — but who knows?

  13. […] baby’s look to camera in the final shot of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, (comments section, here) I’m following on with the opening shot of Kubrick’s next film, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which […]

  14. The final shot in “Hardcore Henry”, when we finally see him and he is gazing at his broken self in a mirror shard, is a sort-of look to camera and from the shot, I took it that Henry saw saying to us, “Bloody Hell! Knackered!”, or better still, “I can’t go home to my wife, looking like this.”!

  15. My comment brings the “looking to camera” thread bang-up-to-date. I loved Benson’s and David’s comments on the Start Child. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that shot! I also wanted to weigh-in Jack Nicholson’s look to camera in “The Shining”, when he turns totally exasperated from a row with Wendy and looks at us as if to say, “Christ! I should fucking just kill her!”; on which more obviously follows.

  16. I don’t recall even spotting that! There are lots of ALMOSt to camera shots in the film, as in the “Stop swinging the bat, Wendy” argument, and then Jack’s address to the audience which turns out to be delivered to Joe Turkel’s ghostly barman.

    Addressing the camera is quite a good technique to make the audience on edge.

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